Ohio Suspends Primary for Coronavirus Concerns

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Late last night, after a chaotic day when voting was off then on then off again, the State of Ohio closed polling places for what would have been today’s primary election due to the coronavirus threat and moved to postpone voting until a later date. The Columbus Dispatch has more:

For real this time: There is no Ohio primary Tuesday.

Early Tuesday, the Ohio Supreme Court denied a legal challenge to the state delaying the primary. A candidate in Wood County filed the action alleging the delay of the primary violated election laws.

Only four justices participated in the ruling, which was issued without an opinion.

“During this time when we face an unprecedented public health crisis, to conduct an election tomorrow would would force poll workers and voters to place themselves at a unacceptable health risk of contracting coronavirus,” said Gov. Mike DeWine in a statement.

“While the polls will be closed tomorrow, Secretary of State Frank LaRose will seek a remedy through the courts to extend voting options so that every voter who wants to vote will be granted that opportunity.”

The late-night announcement and court decision capped a day when the status of the primary seemed to change hourly:

During a press conference Monday afternoon, DeWine and LaRose said they didn’t have the legal authority to delay or call off an election. Thus they sought a court order, through a part of private plaintiffs who sued the state.

But when a Franklin County judge didn’t go along with that gambit, they turned to the health director, who under the law has enormous powers during a health crisis.

Whether those powers extended to shutting down an election will undoubtedly be further tested in court…

LaRose said certainty was needed with the polls scheduled to open in less than eight hours, adding the fate of the election couldn’t rest on “appeals in the middle of the night.”

“The director of the Department of Health has broad authority to protect the lives of Ohioans,” LaRose said…

Lawsuits are expected Tuesday seeking to allow additional days for absentee balloting and to perhaps move the election to a date other than June 2.

The decision to use the state’s health director to close the polls was apparently an emergency move to protect voters and pollworkers – and was necessary because a judge earlier in the day had denied the state’s bid to postpone the election:

DeWine and LaRose foreshadowed the health director’s move about an hour earlier, saying in a joint statement, “The only thing more important than a free and fair election is the health and safety of Ohioans.”

“The Ohio Department of Health and the CDC have advised against anyone gathering in groups larger than 50 people, which will occur if the election goes forward. Additionally, Ohioans over 65 and those with certain health conditions have been advised to limit their nonessential contact with others, affecting their ability to vote or serve as poll workers.

“Logistically, under these extraordinary circumstances, it simply isn’t possible to hold an election tomorrow that will be considered legitimate by Ohioans. They mustn’t be forced to choose between their health and exercising their constitutional rights.”

The statement followed a Monday night ruling by Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Frye denying the attempt to postpone Election Day until June 2 because of the coronavirus outbreak, which immediate generated confusion over whether Ohioans actually would be voting Tuesday or not.

Frye said it would set a “terrible precedent” for a judge to step in 12 hours before polls open to rewrite the Ohio election code.

The fluid situation led many Ohioans to be uncertain about whether the vote was on:

Making matters worse, many poll workers across the state had been prematurely told to stop setting up polling places Monday night and not to come in Tuesday because the election already had been delayed — when it hadn’t.

But even late Monday night, Franklin County Board of Elections Director Ed Leonard said he was waiting to see the Acton’s order before complying and notifying poll workers.

“I want to see the order. I’ve talked with our county prosecutor. Before we take any action he wants us to see the order,” Leonard said.

When the order finally arrived, Leonard gave the order for poll workers to stand down.

In a directive to county boards of elections late Monday, LaRose ordered them to post notice online that voting on March 17 was suspended, barred them from processing new voter registrations for a primary election on June 2, and told them to prepare for in-person voting on June 2.

Even the experts were scratching their heads about the evening’s seemingly contradictory elements. About 8:30 p.m., Aaron Ockerman, head of the Ohio Association of Elections Officials, said, “At this point in the evening, it is almost impossible for boards of elections or the secretary of state to give a concrete answer as to what the plan for tomorrow is.”

Adding to the mess, elections workers told prematurely to go home were called back in to make a hasty attempt to pull off Tuesday’s vote, set to begin at 6:30 a.m.

Of course, they had to be contacted yet again when the election was called off for real.

Ohio’s action comes less than a week after state officials joined their counterparts from other March 17 primary states to assure voters that the election would proceed:

During the press conference Monday, LaRose said, “We know that it would not be safe” to hold a primary election Tuesday.

DeWine added, “I think when we look back on this, we’re going to be glad we did this. The rights of voters will be preserved.”

DeWine said, “Is it a perfect decision? Absolutely not. But we believe it’s the best of bad alternatives. And it does preserve people’s constitutional rights and does not require them to choose between their health and their constitutional right.”

“Suspending in-person voting is a serious matter,” LaRose said. “We have tried to do everything we could to avoid that. All along we have taken our advice from the public health professionals. Obviously this situation has evolved quickly over the last few days.”

Last week, LaRose joined secretaries of state from Illinois, Florida and Arizona in saying Election Day would go on as scheduled in those states Tuesday.

But guidance from public health officials and information about the spread of the virus changed quickly, DeWine said.

“Not only do the facts continue to change, but quite bluntly the public’s understanding of the facts continue to change,” he said, noting that someone who decided a week ago they didn’t need to file an absentee ballot might feel differently now.

Ohio GOP Chairman Jane Timken said in a statement, “We fully support this recommendation, while knowing how difficult this will be on our candidates and their campaigns.”

Ohio Democratic Chairman David Pepper said: “In deference to their expertise on this critical health crisis, I support that decision regarding in-person voting.”

But Pepper said he wants Ohio to explore holding the primary entirely by mail with a deadline much earlier than June 2, so that polling places don’t have to open at all, given that the virus may still be active.

Ohio’s action was consistent with a near-constant effort to adapt the elections process to rapidly-changing coronavirus news:

The day’s developments followed a week of scrambling by elections officials to prepare for Election Day under the cloud of a global pandemic. Ohio has 50 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and hundreds more under investigation.

On Sunday, LaRose issued a directive to extend the deadline for requesting absentee ballots for voters who are “unforeseeably confined or hospitalized” and ordered 88 local boards of elections to offer curbside voting for anyone concerned about entering their polling place.

LaRose had issued a directive Sunday to local boards of election alerting them to the changes.

That followed an order last week to move polling locations from senior living facilities and a dash by local boards of elections to acquire sanitary supplies.

Boards also were to offer curbside voting Tuesday at precinct polling locations for voters concerned about going inside the voting location. But the voter requesting that must send someone else in to inform precinct officials about tbhe desire to vote that way.

Elections officials redoubled efforts to recruit poll workers last week as some who had committed canceled. They ordered sanitary supplies and started asking voters to create more space between themselves in lines.

Last week, LaRose directed county boards of elections to move about 125 polling places out of senior living facilities and to notify voters who would be affected by the shift. Franklin County relocated 16 polling locations.

Voting machine manufacturers have instructed elections officials on how to sanitize equipment, and LaRose’s office has said it will reimburse local boards of elections for buying disinfecting wipes, disposable gloves and other sanitizing supplies.

Needless to say, Ohio’s decision to suspend the primary was an extraordinary action taken in extraordinary circumstances. There is still much to the story – from legal arguments about authority over the election process, to practical concerns about casting ballots in the face of the threat, to policy arguments about how, if at all, this could change elections in Ohio in November and beyond. Best of luck to everyone who is casting ballots today in Arizona, Florida and Illinois – and stay tuned …

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